In Conne River, an eagle feather is a great gift — and a great responsibility
Each piece of the regalia is carefully kept: the epaulet is held separately from the bustle, the visor apart from the fan.
And some pieces are doubly secured: the head-roach feathers are kept in a zip-up wallet, which, in turn, is wrapped inside red cloth — a sacred colour.
These feathers form an important part of the regalia that Jerry Evans will wear to his next powwow. And just as they are securely kept, they will be securely fastened when that day comes.
It would be disastrous for one of these feathers to fall from Evans's dress onto the ground.
"I've seen dancers weep when they've dropped feathers," he said. "We know how sacred this gift is, we know how sacred the eagle is, and we have to always be aware of that."
Eagle feathers are not a simple decoration in the Miawpukek First Nation — for traditional dancers, or for anyone else.
Sagamaw Mi'sel Joe, the chief of the First Nation, says as best he knows, the eagle feather has always played an enormous part of the spirituality and culture of Miawpukek.
"We've been told that the eagle itself is the only bird that ever touched the face of the creator, so eagle feathers are sacred," Joe said.
"In our culture, the eagle flies highest in the sky, and carries our prayers to the Creator," Evan continues.
And so, if their feathers were to drop?
"Until that eagle may have died, it's probably the first time those feathers have touched the ground."
Eagle feathers are given as a gift, a reward for good deeds in the community.
As leader of the First Nation, Mi'sel Joe has the responsibility of giving them out. He'll often be approached for a trade: some tobacco for eagle feathers.
Joe says for the most part, he'll know who is offering the deal. But on the rare occasion he's approached by a stranger, he'll do some investigating.
They're not readily passed out to just anyone, he says, but it need not take long to get one.
"If you're true to your culture, true to Mik'maq ways, and you're being respectful to yourself and people around you, respectful to people in the community, respectful to elders, you don't have to wait years and years to get a feather."
Evans still remembers the moment he learned he would be gifted eagles — and their feathers — for showing "dedication and respect."
"I was gobsmacked. I didn't expect it," he said.
He had long wanted eagle feathers for his regalia, but wasn't sure exactly how he was going to get them. And as a newcomer to the Miawpukek First Nation, the gift from the chief himself meant a little extra: acceptance in his adopted home.
Evans has been visiting and working in the First Nation for more than 30 years. First, he says, it was for his paintings and artwork, but he also gained respect in the community for his dancing, as he's done for the past twenty years.
"For me, it was my place to be. This is where I seem to have gotten acceptance, welcomed within the community."
Before that eagle was gifted to Evans, in 2011, he says it was blessed.
The First Nation has a nearby island preserved for just that purpose.
"Every year, we take dead eagles out to the island and, through a ceremony of course, have them left there," said Joe.
The island is about an hour's walk away, he said, plus a boat ride over the water. No cabins or docks are allowed to be built there, except for a sweat lodge.
The eagles themselves are often brought into the community, as a result of a long-standing agreement between Miawpukek and the provincial government.
It started when the chief heard of eagles — sacred in his traditions — being "discarded in the garbge dump."
He approached the provincial government looking to an agreement that would grant the First Nation any eagles given to their wildlife department.
The eagles brought out to the island are not buried. Instead, they are left on the land, for nature to take its course.
Evans used two such eagles for his bustle, and more for other parts of his dress.
It's made of sacred parts, but it's not stuck in time. The regalia that Evans wears will change, and grow. Some parts will be swapped, some given away, sometimes whole new components will be built.
For the dancer, that just makes sense.
"I'm still growing, as is my regalia," he said. "I'm still learning more about who I am, and where I'm from. And learning how to dance better, maybe."
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